First, Manila hosted the 27th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting on 18-19 November, where leaders committed to support inclusive economic growth with priorities on enhancing the integration agenda, fostering SME participation in regional and global markets, human capital development and building sustainable and resilient communities.
Then we hosted the 10th East Asia Summit from 21-22 November where, after hope was expressed for a “rules-based order” in the region, leaders declared “serious concerns” about China’s island-building in the South China Sea.
Overlapping both was the 27th ASEAN Summit from 18-22 November also in Kuala Lumpur, of which the ceremonial climax was the banging of traditional drums to declare the establishment of the ASEAN Community. This was quickly followed by commentary sceptical that the prerequisites for a truly integrated community have not (and will not) be fulfilled. Optimistically, the enthusiasm will at least prevent leaders from backtracking, but schizophrenia will kick in for some when they address domestic audiences with the language of protectionism and intervention in the economy to reward political supporters.
There was also the 18th ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, Korea) Summit, which “acknowledged the importance of maintaining and enhancing peace, security and stability in the East Asian region and emphasised the need to enhance efforts to address emerging challenges in the areas of traditional and non-traditional security” and then “welcomed the continued growth in trade and investment relations”. Indeed, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement was also upgraded.
On the same day was the 3rd ASEAN-US Summit, which reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining peace and stability, ensuring maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation including in and over-flight above the South China Sea”, before dedicating themselves to the ASEAN integration process and working together “to address challenging global issues such as terrorism, violent extremism, climate change, environmental degradation and pollution, energy, infectious diseases, disarmament, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cybersecurity, trafficking in persons, illicit trafficking of wildlife and timber and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.”
Leaders also took the opportunity for bilateral diplomacy, like the inauguration of the Torana Gate by Prime Ministers Najib and Modi, and the launch of arts fest Titian Budaya celebrating 50 years of Singapore-Malaysia friendship by both Prime Ministers.
President Obama meanwhile met young people drawn from his Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (the session was by all accounts more robust than the previous one), as well as representatives from Malaysian civil society, which I took part in.
Many governments engage civil society – through joint events, funding projects, lunches with the ambassador – but meetings with heads of state/government are rare: the previous case must have been British Prime Minister David Cameron (as the High Commissioner explained at a recent Malaysian British Society charity dinner).
I began by recalling the common values shown when Tunku Abdul Rahman met Eisenhower in the White House and when LBJ visited Kuala Lumpur and Negeri Sembilan, and IDEAS’ belief that these values which were at the forefront at the birth of our nation should be protected and championed. The discussion covered many issues, but certainly not everyone around the table agreed on everything. No one was under the impression that speaking with the President of the United States of America would in itself cause a change of policy, but it was a useful contribution to the bilateral relationship – just as governments engage other governments, political parties and businesses, so should they also engage with civil society. We should certainly do the same in our diplomacy with other countries, unless we believe that governments have a monopoly on truth about what happens in their countries.
KL residents felt the weekend through traffic jams, but my visual photograph will be of the armed soldier on guard, a throwback to the Emergency for some and a visual consequence of the leaked reports of potential suicide bombers in the capital, after the second run of Malam Terang Bulan which once again emotionally told the international story of our national anthem.
As a country and as a region we are balancing so much: demands for liberal economic integration vs protectionism and freer movement vs security concerns all in a massive geopolitical context led by actors with their own domestic (or personal) priorities.
At the 29th Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lecture Lord Dyson concluded that judicial review is not a threat to democracy, having earlier quoted Almarhum’s famous dictum – “Every legal power must have legal limits, otherwise there is dictatorship” – which reminded me that after all the multilateral, regional and bilateral agreements, none will matter unless we Malaysians can exercise our stake in them by defending democracy and rule of law.
Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS